February 10, 2009 - The videogame industry has seen its share of controversy, almost all of which centers around sex and violence. It's a rare thing for a game to be labeled as potentially racist. But that's what it's come to for Capcom's Resident Evil 5. The potty mouth of the main character Chris Redfield isn't an issue nor is the excessive blood and routine decapitations. What's drawing the ire of many outside the industry (and raising the eyebrows of some within it) is who you kill in RE5.
Set in Africa, because (as revealed in Resident Evil: Code Veronica) that is where the Progenitor virus originated, your primary targets are native Africans. With the release of the first full RE5 trailer in 2007, numerous journalists and social commentators raised concern that RE5 depicted Africa as a nation of savages and that the game itself would reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. When Resident Evil 5 releases this March, those concerns won't subside.
I've played the first half of RE5 and through those three chapters gamers spend a good majority of time shooting people with dark skin. There are moments that some will never connect with racism, but that others will see as clear use of racist iconography.
The game begins with Chris Redfield walking through an African village that appears uninfected. He sees some men kicking something in a sack. The implication is that even before the infection, these are bad people. If RE5 were set on another continent and these characters had white skin, no one would give it a second thought. Typical "village full of bad guys" gaming clich?. But these characters are black. And as such the imagery can be perceived to have racist undertones. Later, there is a cutscene depicting a white woman being dragged into a house by an infected black man. In its recent hands-on, Eurogamer criticized this moment in particular for playing into traditional racist fear-mongering. To propagate fear of blacks from the time of slavery and through the Civil Rights movement in the United States, white society was warned that big black men are coming for your daughters.
Do these images and the fact that the core gameplay has you shooting black men and women make RE5 racist? The answer is going to vary greatly from one person to the next and, perhaps more significantly, from one region to the next. In Japan, for example, it's unlikely that the events depicted in Resident Evil 5 will be viewed as racist in any way. Japan and other Asian nations never experienced centuries of racist oppression against blacks. In Europe and America, where racism continues to be an issue to this day, and where, less than two centuries ago, slavery was legal, the imagery will likely resonate more substantially.
One of the many Africans to be turned evil in RE5.This isn't to suggest that racism and, more specifically, xenophobia are not major issues in Japan. In fact, a 2005 United Nations report cited "profound discrimination of a cultural and historical nature" in Japan. But the imagery likely to cause the most fervor from the Western world is also specific to the West. It might be fair to accuse Capcom of being insensitive to how others might perceive the game, perhaps even of suffering a cultural ignorance, but the accusations of outright racism are a bit far-fetched.
In an interview last year with MTV, RE5 Producer Jun Takeuchi stated that the team "certainly didn't anticipate the reaction" they received. Takeuchi claims in the same interview that "there are black members in the development team...who are aware of the historical background and we are constantly checking these kinds of things with them."
While I personally didn't find the imagery in RE5 racist or offensive, others will. That's because the majority of racism in our society is subconsciously projected and perceived. We can all identify overt racism and prejudice, none of which appear in the first half of RE5. There are no fire hoses pushing back ordinary African citizens, no crosses burnt on the lawns of the infected, no Africans singing or dancing or playing basketball or eating watermelon or any of a dozen other blatantly racist images. The offensiveness of RE5 is subjective.
In today's culture, where an African-American has been elected President of the United States, most racism occurs below the surface. This less quantifiable prejudice can be seen in the quality of education provided in inner-cities versus predominantly white suburbs, in wages, or the disproportionate number of African-Americans in jail.
Where we live and our experiences growing up influence our perceptions of what is and is not racist. Need proof? Just look at the OJ Simpson trial. Based on polling at the time of the verdict, the majority of whites believed OJ was guilty, the majority of blacks believed he was not guilty. Both saw the same evidence, heard the same testimony. Ultimately, the experience of growing up as an African-American in the U.S. is different than growing up Caucasian. That doesn't mean only blacks will view RE5 as racist or that every white gamer is going to see it as innocent gameplay, but it does illustrate the point that how we perceive racism can change based on who we are and how we grew up.
One thing that seems to be neglected in the recent criticism of RE5 is that your AI partner, Sheva, is African. She is smart, helpful and equally willing to shoot her infected countrymen. Were Resident Evil 5 a solo campaign featuring Chris Redfield as a white crusader taming Africa with his bullets, then perhaps the charges of racism would be more difficult to dismiss. But Sheva is more skilled than Redfield, is an integral part to the story and is not saddled with any racial stereotypes. Add to this the fact, again often ignored by critics, that there are other non-infected Africans who assist you throughout the game. None of these characters are portrayed any differently because of the color of their skin.
Resident Evil 5 takes place in Africa. As such, it is inevitable that a good majority of enemies will be Africans. While RE5 might be guilty of being insensitive in an over-sensitive world, at least it shows Africa the respect of making it a real place with the very real problems of poverty and disease. That's not a stereotype. That is a sad reality in some parts of Africa. Though the publicly released RE5 demo includes a run through a shanty town, there are other environments, such as a massive oil refinery, that show Africa's modernization. It may not be a representation of Africa that people admire--it certainly doesn't show the full breadth of African culture--but it also doesn't liken African society to an ancient and outdated culture.
The storyline, which has non-native white men experimenting on the African populace, is not much of a stretch. From 1932 to 1975, 400 African-Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama were unwillingly participants in a government study on the affects of syphilis. A 2005 Fortune Magazine article revealed that "Pfizer administered doses of its experimental drug Trovan to children [in Africa] without their parents' consent." There are numerous other documented incidents of pharmaceutical companies setting up shop in the poorest areas of Africa to conduct low-cost experiments. Is it racist for Resident Evil 5 to create a similar, fictionalized account?
Symbolic of the struggle between races or just a dude trying to survive?
Resident Evil 5 is not the first game set in Africa, nor the first to feature a white lead killing blacks. The recently released Far Cry 2 is also set in Africa and as the lead character you kill endless strings of bad guys, many of whom are black. In Sony's Uncharted, you play a dashing Caucasian hero who spends a good deal of his time killing dark-skinned mercenaries in South America. The very popular Gears of War co-stars Cole, who raps, speaks "street," is a former professional athlete and talks like the amalgamation of every stereotypical black thug ever featured in a movie or game. Yet none of these games received the same negative attention as RE5.
Perhaps it's because RE5 features innocent natives, subjected to an unholy experiment, and then turned into mindless villains. Yet that is the same plot for RE4, which had the same lead character killing Spanish enemies. And it's really no different than the previous Resident Evil titles, all of which center on innocent people turned into bloodthirsty zombies. So why is it suddenly coming to a head now?
Were the identical events played out with the same lead character, but set in rural America where the majority of enemies were white, there would be no controversy. You could have the same storyline, the same cut-scenes, the same game--just with white antagonists--and no one would care. Doesn't that very fact show that the "racist" elements of RE5 are a result of the perceptions of the viewer?
I don't begrudge anyone who finds the imagery in RE5 offensive. But I don't believe that vilifying Capcom for its artistic vision is appropriate. This controversy illustrates that race relations remain a major issue in America and Europe. Electing an African-American President doesn't suddenly wipe away the past few centuries of prejudice, nor does it create a level playing field for blacks in this country. But attacking a videogame isn't going to fix these things either. Perhaps it's time to let go of what a game represents to us individually and move the dialogue to a more significant issue: How do we create a world where opportunity is not merited by the color of one's skin?